Push underway on lobbying, ethics

By Leslie Williams

RALEIGH, N.C. — American citizens owe a debt of gratitude to Jack Abramoff, says Chellie Pingree.

Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause, says political scandals like the one involving Abramoff, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., have put Americans’ concerns about ethics and lobbying into the spotlight.

“A year ago, we didn’t think we’d be able to talk about many of these issues,” says Pingree, a former majority leader in the Maine Senate whose group works to hold elected officials accountable.

But now, she said during a May 24 luncheon in Raleigh, “people no longer think it’s okay,” she said.

The luncheon event, hosted by NC Policy Watch and the North Carolina Coalition for Lobby Reform, attracted about 100 nonprofit leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists and focused on lawmakers’ efforts in Raleigh and Washington to crack down on the political culture in which gifts are exchanged for legislation and influence.

Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch, said the issues addressed at the luncheon are important for restoring the public’s faith in elected officials.

The North Carolina House of Representatives is considering legislation to expand a lobbying law passed last year and slated to take effect in January 2007.

State Rep. Joe Hackney, a Democrat who represents Chatham, Durham and Orange counties and co-chairs a House select committee on ethics and government reform, said his committee had created a strong 10-bill reform package.

A so-called “no-gift rule” in the legislation would bar lobbyists from giving gifts worth more than $10 to legislators, he said.

“The lobbyists are for it, the public is for it,” he said. “And to a surprising degree, the members [of the General Assembly] are for it.”

But Hackney also said some issues still were unresolved.

The definition of a “lobbyist,” for example, is fluid and difficult to nail down, he said, and too many groups, including nonprofits, balk at the label.

“But they are paid just like anyone else to lobby,” he said.

State Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican representing Davie and Iredell counties who co-chairs the reform committee, praised the committee’s work.

“There’s nothing weak-kneed about legislators who choose, who ask, to be on the House ethics committee,” she said.  “It’s much easier for us to do legislation that deals with someone else.”

Current reform efforts began in 2003 after the Center for Public Integrity released a state-by-state report card assessing lobbying laws that gave North Carolina an “F,” said Bob Phillips, director of Common Cause North Carolina.

If the bills survive in the House and Senate, North Carolina’s lobbying law would be much more detailed than federal law, which Chellie Pingree called “lukewarm.”

The public is angry about corruption involving elected officials, she said, pointing to the process under way in North Carolina as an example of progress.

“We have to stop this tie between money and the political process,” she said.

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